By ILSA MINOR
Escanaba Daily Press
ESCANABA — The Michigan Department of Natural Resources Trust Fund has spoken: the modification of an easement crossing property owned by Conservation District Manager Rory Mattson violates the terms of the grant that facilitated the purchase of the county forest in Cornell.
At the Aug. 15 Delta County Board of Commissioners meeting, the commissioners granted a request by Mattson to modify the terms of the easement that allowed access to the county forest through his property, restricting access to only fire suppression and timber harvesting uses. However, documents presented at Tuesday’s meeting of the conservation district board showed that there were concerns about the new restrictions before the commissioner’s formally heard Mattson’s request.
During Tuesday’s meeting, Delta County Conservation Board Chair Joe Kaplan read an email sent on Aug. 11 by County Administrator Ashleigh Young to Jon Mayes, program manager for the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund, asking if the changes would violate the county’s existing agreement with the state.
“‘We have had a request for an easement modification on the Cornell forest land. I know this was purchased with trust fund monies and wanted to make sure the approval of the modification won’t affect the grant agreement,’” Kaplan read from the letter.
On Aug. 17, two days after the county voted to approve the easement modification, Mayes responded.
“The diminishment of value that would occur to the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund encumbered land resulting from reducing the easements rights held by the county is not compatible with the conditions outlined in the project agreement between Delta County and the State of Michigan. I would caution the county against taking any action to diminish the rights of the public for the current or future access or to the use of the Cornell Forest property, as this would almost certainly represent a breach of the project agreement,” Mayes wrote.
Mayes letter went on to direct Young to a list of possible remedies for breaches of the agreement, which included possible repayment of grant funds to the state. It was not clear Tuesday what remedies the state would pursue.
According to Kaplan, the changes to the easement were recorded with the county’s register of deeds on Aug. 21.
The conservation district last met on Aug. 23, at which time the board voted to request the state attorney general’s involvement with the easement issue, citing Mattson’s involvement in the negotiations to buy the forest property prior to purchasing land himself, both as an individual and jointly with former District Board Chair Jack Herrick and Gary Stanek.
“When you were negotiating that, you were negotiating as a public official through a public body, but you were also negotiating, you had a side agreement to buy that in the future. You said it at that podium. I heard it with my own ears, I’ve listened to it again. You eventually bought that. You never disclosed you had a conflict of interest,” Kaplan told Mattson at the Aug. 23 meeting.
Tuesday, Kaplan reported that he had reached out the attorney general’s office, but it was still unknown if the department would assist the conservation district.
“I did send a request to the attorney general and they are looking into discussing this at management, whether or not they are going to provide those legal services,” he said.
Under the state’s conservation district law, conservation districts may receive legal assistance from the attorney general’s office, but whether or not those services are provided is at the discretion of the attorney general.